The monstrous serpent was real!

Did the Gloucester fisherman see a massive tuna, or a serpent? And what are we conjuring, when we imagine the sea?

Topics: sustainability, History, Gloucester sea serpent, Environment, Editor's Picks, ,

The monstrous serpent was real! (Credit: tets via Shutterstock/Salon)

On a calm and sunny day in August 1817, a few Gloucester fishermen rowing out to work saw a strange animal break the surface right in their harbor. Something they’d never seen before.  Something moving in jolting, up-and-down motions.  And something really, really big.  Witness Solomon Allen III later reported, “I should judge him between eighty and ninety feet in length, and about the size of a half barrel, apparently having joints from his head to his tail. His head formed something like the head of a rattle snake, but nearly as large as the head of a horse.”

The sighting in Gloucester, and others in the following weeks, spread through New England.  The Salem-based Essex Register wrote, “Yesterday information was received in this town from Gloucester of the appearance of an unusual fish or serpent in the harbor.  The letter represented, that the head of it, eight feet out of the water, was as large as the head of a horse, and great in length”  The article quoted the letter: “‘[The animal] appears in joints like the wooden buoys in a net rope, almost as large as a barrel. Two muskets were fired at it, and appeared to hit it on the head, but without effect.  It immediately disappeared, and in a short time was seen a little below, but in the dark we lost sight of him. It appears like a string of gallon kegs 100 feet long.’” The Boston Weekly Messenger ran two articles about the animal in late August, two in September, and one in October.  “Monstrous Serpent,” the Aug. 21 headline read in the Messenger. Ferries out of Gloucester increased their scheduled trips for the many tourists who came.

What made these sightings different from the long history of sea monster sightings was that they came from Gloucester fishermen – those who had inherited the oldest fishing port in America, those who knew mostly every fish species off Cape Ann and when each migrated through.  More, this “serpent” was in their harbor, right under their noses – something equivalent to a sasquatch walking across the parking lot of a hunting expo.  “I have been to sea many years,” Sewall Toppan, master of the Gloucester schooner Laura reported on Sept. 1 1817, “and never saw any fish that had the least resemblance to this animal.”



Not a week after the first sighting, Boston’s Linnaean Society of New England, two years old, launched a formal investigation.  Up until that point, the Linnaean Society – a group of gentlemen gathering at each other’s houses for dinners and conversation – had only met to discuss published papers like “An analysis of the Incrustation formed upon the Basket of Eggs from Derbyshire, England” (submitted to the Society Dec. 15, 1815) or to collect specimens, including a living bear, for their museum.  They were eager to publish their own material.  They were eager to show European scientists  that American zoology was astounding.  The Society employed Honorable Lonson Nash of Gloucester to take depositions from the fishermen.

It’s easy now to deride cryptozoology – have you seen that show with the man who howls “like” a sasquatch? – but that the Linnaean Society organized a scientific response to the reports is not so unreasonable, for three logical steps. One: There are 5-foot sea snakes living in South Pacific reefs (subfamily: Hydrophiinae). Two: Many animals today come from extinct and giant ancestors (e.g., giant sloth, sharks). Three: Animals that scientists thought extinct have shown up unexpectedly – the ugly coelacanth, for example, was caught by a fisherman in South Africa in 1938, and there’s that 2007 video of the gill shark squirming somewhere off the Japanese coast.  The Gloucester sea snake would have been a long lost and extinct giant form of the sea snake, a Mega-Hydrophiinae of sorts.  The shyer Japanese giant salamander of New England’s bays. And Americans weren’t the only ones seeing giant sea snakes at the time; Norwegian fishermen reported the snakes as regular August visitors.  Bishop Pontoppidan of Norway’s 1755 “Natural History of Norway” reads that “This creature, particularly in the North Sea, continually keeps himself at the bottom of the sea, excepting in the months of July and August … they come to the surface in calm weather, but plunge into the water again so soon as the wind raises the least wave.” The Norwegians reported the creature with almost bored certainty: “Some of our north traders … think it a very strange question, when they are seriously asked whether there be any such creature; they think it as ridiculous as if the question was put to them whether there be such fish as eel or cod.”

Within a few months of the first sighting in Gloucester harbor, the Linnaean Society published its first paper: “Report of a Committee of the Linnaean Society of New England Relative to a Large Marine Animal Supposed to be a Serpent, Seen near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in August 1817″ (1817, Hilliard and Metcalf, Harvard University Press), including depositions, letters from witnesses, and detailed prints.  They even named it: Scoliophis Atlanticus, for its kinked back that floated out of the water.  America had a real giant sea snake, scientific name and all.  A long shed was built near Faneuil Hall in Boston to house the stuffed Scoliophis once it was caught.   

II

I first found Gloucester’s sea snake story when I was home for a few days in the summer, spending an idle afternoon poking around my parents’ bookshelf.  Between an old world atlas and back issues of National Geographic I found “Surveying the Shore: Historic Maps of Coastal Massachusetts, 1600-1930.”   It’s a tall coffee table book showing 18th-19th-century cartographers wrestle the arm of Cape Cod flexing and shriveling.  About a quarter of the way into the book there is a map titled  “A Correct View of the Town and Outer Harbour of Gloucester and the Appearance of the Sea Serpent as Was Seen on the 14th Day of August 1817,” cut with the sort of precise intaglio you find on dollar bills.  Each wave in the harbor is articulated in its own delineated topography; you can see rigging on the schooners in the distance; two dories float peacefully in the harbor.  The fishermen’s pinheaded and hollow faces in the dories all turn to a giant snake swimming toward land.  Each of the snake’s ridged humps are the size of the fishing boats. The humps are almost identical to the waves, and if you don’t read the title of the map you could easily miss the snake. But on the far left is the profiled serpentine head, erect and facing shoreward, mouth agape, forked tongue stiff and out.  The entire town, the clouds, the distant schooners, and the snake are all done in obsessive, sober line-work to make the scene perfectly credible.

Accompanying the map is a description of the response that the Linnaean Society had mustered.  After I closed the book I went to look for the “Report” in the only place that I knew to net obscure maritime literary flotsam: The New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library. It turned out that had two copies – one with still-uncut pages. The introduction to the “Report” reads,

In the month of August 1817, it was currently reported on various authorities, that an animal of very singular appearance had been recently and repeatedly seen in the harbour of Gloucester, Cape Ann, about thirty miles distant from Boston. It was said to resemble a serpent in its general form and motions, to be of immense size, and to move with wonderful rapidity; to appear on the surface of the water only in calm and bright weather; and to seem jointed or like a number of buoys or casks following each other in a line.

Following that introduction, there are 11 depositions, all of them either Gloucester fishermen, mariners of schooners, merchants, ship masters or carpenters swearing under oath.  Some witnesses said they knew sea serpent look-alikes: a pod of dolphins swimming in a line; a migration of finback whales; seals breaking the surface. This wasn’t that, they said.  Among the Honorable Lonson Nash’s 25 standard questions, he asked: When did you first see the animal? At what distance? What was its general appearance? How fast did it move? What parts of it were above the water and how high? How many distant portions were out of the water at one time? What were it color, length, and thickness? Smooth or rough? What were the size and shape of its head, and had the head ears, horns, or other appendages? Describe its eyes and mouth. Had it gills or breathing holes and where? Had it fins, legs? How many persons saw it? State any other remarkable fact.

From all the depositions, here is a summary of the animal’s behavior and apparent anatomy:  The animal only appeared in calm weather and in flat water; its body was thick as a keg in circumference and skin dark, nearly black, and reflected sunlight very brightly when it rested on the surface.  It had black eyes, too, and its head was about the size of a big dog’s or horse’s head but leathery and snake-like — ship master Eppes Ellory, standing with 20 witnesses, deposed, “I was looking at him with a spy-glass, when I saw him open his mouth and his mouth appeared like that of a serpent; the top of his head appeared flat.”  But two features singled out the animal to distinguish it from every other giant sea snake report.  One, on its keg-size humps were”‘rings” or “bunches.”  And two, its humps didn’t glide horizontally through the water – as dolphins’ and whales’ backs do; the humps sank directly down, submerging and reappearing like buoys pulled down and let free, or like a big, marine caterpillar, scooting just under the surface.  As the Honorable Lonson Nash wrote in the “Report,” “I saw him, on the 14th instant, for nearly half and hour. I should judge he was two hundred and fifty yards from me, when the nearest … I saw, at no time, more than eight distinct portions … I believe the animal to be straight, that the apparent bunches were caused by his vertical motion.” The humps never broke the surface enough as to display the full arc: “[the bunches] appeared about six inches above the water,” said Eppes Ellory. Solomon Allen agreed: “It’s joints or bunches appeared about eight to ten inches above the surface of the water.”

At the end of the “Report,” the Society included a five-page foldout rendering of Scoliophis modeled after a deformed blacksnake found near the beach that some people thought to be its offspring.  If there’s a single reason to go looking through the dusty library stacks, it’s the pleasure of unfolding a print of 200-year-old giant sea snake.

I scanned the “Report” and emailed images to my brother, a geographer.  He emailed me back a PDF from the Journal of Biogeography called  “Predicting the distribution of Sasquatch in western North America: anything goes with ecological niche modeling.”  The paper includes a map of California showing perfect overlap of sasquatch and American black bear sightings (footprint, auditory, visual).  The predicted distribution range map of the sasquatch and black bear are identical, thick on the coasts of Oregon and Washington and swirling into Idaho’s national forests and down into Yosemite.  The authors include a drawing of a sasquatch beside a standing black bear – the two are about the same size and width, and when I looked up a black bear’s hind footprint, I thought I was looking at a human footprint.  The paper concludes, “Although it is possible that Sasquatch and U. americanus [black bear] share remarkably similar bioclimatic requirements, we nonetheless suspect that many Bigfoot sightings are, in fact, of black bears.”  This is the message that ends all cryptozoology stories: You are seeing something else.

The summer of 1817 faded.  As the days shortened and fall moved in, still no one had caught or shot the animal, despite the cash reward that the Linnaean Society was now offering after its publication.  To stoke the public’s interest, painter John Ritto Penniman made a 9-by-19-foot rendering of the serpent that toured the country and landed in exhibition at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia, where America’s first recovered mammoth bones were displayed.  Penniman’s painting is now lost, as is his 1819 “Drawing of an Ancient Carved Box” and the whimsical “Drawing of an Extraordinary Ox,” 1827.  The painting might have been lost in a fire, or is rolled up and stuffed in some attic, but I like to think it’s still on a dusty living room wall in some old New England home, a 19-foot anonymous sea snake swimming forward.

Fall, then winter. Ice might have crept out to the harbor. The fishermen would have been going after flounder, and the Linnaean Society’s report simmered in New England’s imagination until the next year, late July, when Scoliophis Atlanticus returned.

III

In her living room this past winter, leatherback turtle researcher Kara Dodge held up for me what looked like a demon’s skull — big as a football, with fangs, eye sockets big enough to fit my fist, and a plow-like lower jaw that hooked into a deranged smile.

“A full adult leatherback,” she said, “is going to have a head at least a third bigger than this.”  She pointed to the mouth.  “Instead of the beak, they have two fangs,” she said. “Cusps.”

We were standing in her Cape Cod home in the sleepy town of Osterville, where she and her husband, Mike, and their 2-year-old daughter live out what I would guess is everyone’s fantasy when they think marine biologist: She and Mike spend summers chasing the leatherback turtles in Nantucket Sound.  He nets the turtles from the bow of commercial fishing boats, and she tags them with satellite transmitters. Kara is currently the only American researcher studying adult leatherbacks on the open water, which is part of the reason why so little about their behavior is known – most researchers study females and young near the tropical beaches where the turtles lay their eggs.  They’re not critically endangered, but, still, people have given them trouble. She later told me that some bars in the South Pacific sell leatherback eggs as an aphrodisiac: “Instead of a beer and whiskey, it’s a beer and an egg.”

She handed me the skull, and I put it on a table to snap a few photos of it beside the smaller, foot-long ruler.

“You can see the serpentine aspect,” she said.

On the shelf behind her was a line of turtle skulls that have stranded on the Cape, staring at me with their huge, empty, hollow sockets.

“I keep most of our body parts out here.” She motioned to the shelf.  “To scare small children.”

Leatherbacks are the world’s largest sea turtle – a 7-foot, 2,000 pounder washed up on the Welsh coast 10 years ago.  Chances are you’ve never seen one off Cape Cod, even though they come to New England every August to feed on jellyfish that float through in late summer.  All those that come north are big adults, 5 or 6 feet long – not too much shorter than its prehistoric predecessor Archelon, which lived in warm Cretaceous sea above the Midwest and averaged 13 feet beak-to-tail, 16 feet paddle-tip to paddle-tip, weighed three tons, and had the head about the size of a horse’s. Just like the leatherback, Archelon’s skeletal underside, minus the carapace, looked like exploding fireworks, the tapered ends meeting at fused points; the back was a massive ribbed shovel; and the skin, like the leatherback’s, was stretched canvas-like over the hard carapace.

I put the skull back on the shelf, and Kara and Mike led me to the home office, past the turtle drawings that their daughter made, to show me video of leatherbacks in the field.  On her desk was a signed photo from Jane Goodall.

“Our peak season is August,” she said, booting up the computer.  “That’s feeding season. They tend to leave in October. Go to warm water off the South Atlantic Bite.”

I ask her what they look like when they come to the surface.

“When we see them come up, we see the ridges. Bumpy ridges. You can see the ridges from a fairly long way away – but it has to be calm. We don’t even go out unless it’s calm.”

I asked her if they ever rise up together, if she ever saw multiple bumps on the water’s surface.

“If you’re in a hot spot, I’ve noticed that they tend to surface simultaneously.  One time when we were working in northern Florida on a glassy calm day – the water was like an oil sheen – we would be going to catch one turtle and three others would pop up. Sometimes they’d be right next to each other. Right together. And then this past summer, toward the end of the day, there were at least four visible, within 10 feet of each other.”

In waters north of the Gulf Stream’s southern New England turnoff, leatherbacks spend a lot of time basking on the surface.  One Canadian research team described leatherbacks spending a tenth of their days basking in the afternoon and evening light, flippers and heads drooped below water, idly soaking up the sun on their dark, glossy backs.

As Kara flipped through more images of black and ridged humps dotting the calm, late-summer ocean, I asked why she thinks people don’t usually see them.

“They don’t know what they’re looking for,” she said.  “Or at.”  Boaters call the sea turtle hot-line (888-SEA-TURT), she said.  “They say, ‘I saw this thing rising to the surface with the head a size of a basketball. Vicious snapping jaws! And if it got you – you’d be dead!’”  Mike added,  “Some of the fisherman say, ‘No we’ve never seen large turtles,’ when we ask. But they just didn’t know what they were looking for. Up in Canada, the researchers retrained the swordfishermen to look for a hump and head instead of a fin. And suddenly fishermen started seeing them.  They needed an identification to put to it.  It’s a perception thing. They literally don’t see it if they don’t have the search image.”

I asked him about the fishermen here, say, out of Gloucester. Do they see them?

“Some guys have just been really burned by the regulations and they feel that the less information they share, the better. Which I respect and understand, completely.  If they have a turtle in their gear, they don’t want to make a report. But if you can get the fishermen on your side, then you see more.”

In Kara and Mike’s hallway, on my way out, I passed a framed newspaper clipping of a man posing with a massive turtle.  It was Kara’s dad, a fisherman in Scituate, back in the ’60s.  He’d found a leatherback caught up in his traps. Nobody had ever seen a turtle like that in those waters.  After the photo sessions, some wealthy guy paid to have it boated way out to the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, where they thought it lived.

Driving back to New Bedford in snow flurries, I crossed the Bourne Bridge, over the Cape Cod Canal, when it was dark.  I was tired and lost in thought.  Years ago, during the rabies epidemic in Massachusetts, there was a rumor that a rabies-prevention initiative lined the Cape-side of the canal with poisoned meat to kill infected coyotes before they swam across.  A friend told me that the poisoned meat was just killing people’s dogs.  On the bridge now, I imagined a pack of coyotes, diving out past the dead dogs, jumping into the water, their crazed heads bobbing on the surface as the paddled out to the Cape.  How would you piece all those heads together?  Or, reverse it. Looking from the ocean floor, how would you piece together what’s on the surface?  Swimmers at the crowded beach: a long and flat shallow-water animal with pale cilia, whipping at the currents. A regatta: a hard-shelled giant.  Section one of a triathlon: scales on an enormous stomach.

There’s something about the ocean that keeps on giving to cryptozoology, mostly because it’s a great dark room whose door only opens when animals rise to breathe or eat or sun themselves, or when they flash through a cone of light shot from a deep-water submersible.  There’s a bed of sunlight caught in the first 10 feet or so of water, and then total and huge blackness.  Still, though, the unsettling sea generates a productive fear to stoke our imaginations.  How about that passage in “Moby-Dick,” near the end of Chapter 35, when Ishmael climbs up the rigging to take his watch. Sitting on the topsail yard, his leg hanging lazily by the sail, he reflects on all the other young men who have taken watch from those heights: “Lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves and thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, up-rising fin of some indiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.”

When I got home that night from Kara’s, I poked around on the Internet for information on the poisoned meat that killed dogs, but couldn’t find a single article on it. I wondered if that was made up.

IV

Late July, 1818. The Boston Weekly Advertiser reported that the giant sea snake had returned to the Cape Ann. “He was seen at the mouth of the harbour on the Saturday last by a Mr. William Sargent, who was out a fishing, passing so near his boat that he could almost have reached him with an oar.”

Again the town went after him with muskets, shot him eight times, but, again, the shots had no effect: “For though on the firing he went under water, yet he soon rose again, and played upon the surface as before.”

Late August, with serpent tourism building and the Faneuil Hall shed still empty, a certain Capt. Richard Rich, in something equivalent to the “Jaws” fingernails-on-chalkboard scene, announced that he would find and kill the animal.  For crew, he signed on eight witnesses from the year before.  On Aug. 20, almost exactly a year after the first sighting, Rich reported to the Messenger that he had harpooned the sea snake: “We struck him fairly, but the harpoon soon drew out, and he has not been seen since; and I fear the wound he has received will make him more cautious how he approaches the shore.”  For three weeks Capt. Rich pursued the sea snake, and finally, in early September, the Boston Weekly Messenger published this news: “The fish taken by Capt. Rich, and which he brought to town and exhibited on Friday is of the Mackerel tribe, and the Thunny or Mackerel.”  Thunny is the old word for tuna fish.

“My crew all agreed to a man,” reported the captain, “that what we then saw was the supposed Serpent, which had been seen both at that place and at Gloucester Harbour – I was perfectly satisfied, so precisely did it answer to the description that had been given of him-and had I never approached nearer, I could, with satisfaction to my own mind, have given testimony upon oath, that I had seen a Serpent not less than one hundred feet in length…By following it up closely we have ascertained that the supposed Serpent, is no other than the wake of such a fish as we have taken.”

A correspondent for the Boston Weekly Messenger, mysteriously named “M,” replied to Rich’s reports: “It does not seem probably that a single fish of this kind could produce, by any means, appearances like those ascribed to the sea serpent. Yet it is possible that a shoal of them, especially if swimming in a row with their heads above water, might represent very well the continuous bunches of the serpent. If swimming in different directions, they would represent the mode of turning of the serpent, and as for his sinking like a rock, it only requires that every fish in the train should take care of himself.”  But, the correspondent continued, “Every one allows that the phenomenon in Cape Ann harbor last summer, had a head. This was carried several feet above water; it was seen by many, accurately described by a number, and actually fired at, from the distance of about a rod.”

Yes, the head.  Returning to the “Report,” I reread Solomon Allen’s account that “when I looked at him from the shore with a glass, at about two hundred yards distance, his mouth appeared to be open ten inches,” and Eppes Ellory’s “I saw him open his mouth and his mouth appeared like that of a serpent,” and William H. Foster’s “When I first discovered him, his head was above there surface of the water, perhaps ten inches … his head appeared as large as a mans’ head,” and James Mansfield’s “His head appeared to be about the size of a crown of a hat, at a distance from whence I saw him.  The shape of his head I cannot describe, and I saw no ears, horns, or other appendages,” and Amos Story’s “His carried his head from ten to twelve inches above the surface of the water,” and William Pearson’s “once he raised his head out of the water. The top of his head appeared flat, and was raised seven or eight inches above the surface of the water.”  And then there’s Elkanah Finney of Plymouth standing on a beach, looking out to the water and seeing a number of buoy-like black humps that “lay entirely still on the surface of the water.”

As “M” continued, “The appearance of shoals of the Thunny is said to be a thing by no means infrequent. It is hardly probable that a maritime town like Gloucester, a great portion of whose inhabitants are sailors, familiar with every sea, that any common marine phenomena should have passed as new.”

Still, when the tuna was landed, Scoliophis Atlanticus’ special Faneuil Hall shed was dismantled. The Linnaean Society, humiliated, disbanded, giving its collection of Chinese insects and dilapidated monkey skins to the Harvard Museum.

V

One hundred and ninety-five years later, in an unseasonably cold June week, after I found the book on historic maps of New England, after I visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library and unfolded the “Report’s” drawing, I was sitting by my family’s fireplace, staring into the flames and letting it shed away the day’s scramble of thoughts. I had been spending the past few evenings in that very spot, sort of reading, but mostly with my book in my lap and thinking about Gloucester, wondering if the Gloucester fishermen had maybe seen a giant sea snake at the tail end of its extinction, or if they had all lied, or if they had just been tricked by the tuna they saw every year. Had the tunafish been a false ending to what might have been worth looking into more?

And then, between one of these nights, I walked down a local beach and came upon what looked like a huge sack adorned with arrowhead-like bones.  I poked at it with a stick, and a putrid scent opened up in the wind. I dragged it to the dunes and called a nearby nature center.  I described that I had found something big with platelets instead of bones and emphasized that I had never seen anything like it before.  I mentioned that I had pulled it up the beach and he could come see if he wanted.  The biologist said without much enthusiasm, “Sounds like a leatherback turtle.” I sent pictures, and he sent back an email confirming that it was a leatherback.

That night and by the fire, with my computer on my lap, I googled “leatherback turtle” and clicked through image after image of what looked to me like giant rattlesnake heads breaching calm water.  Their kinked and black glossy backs rose behind.  I came upon a video of Kara giving a lecture at the Boston Aquarium.  It took me until winter, but I eventually wrote her to ask if leatherbacks ever congregate near shore, and if we might meet up.

But then, even after she showed me the fangs and videos of glossy black backs, even after hearing about the August migration, there’s the hundred feet of humps to account for, not just the head.  After crossing the Bourne Bridge on that snowy night, I settled on the image of the “Report” cannibalizing itself with its details, ouroboros-like.

Ben Shattuck has written for McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, HTMLGiant, ReadyMade, Once Magazine, 7x7, and The Morning News, among other publications.

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